This post is co-authored by Beth Hohenfeld, Service Learning Literacy educator, and Lorri Kingan, Library Media Specialist, from Hudson Middle School in Hudson, Ohio.
“Service Learning has taught me so much. I love coming to this class every day, knowing that I can, will, and did make a difference in the world. It could be very challenging sometimes, but it is truly worth every second of hard work. I feel like service learning needs to be a class that every Middle Schooler takes from all around the world. Together, we can make a difference!” - 8th grade student reflection
Native plants, refugee outreach, suicide prevention, plastic reduction, helping veterans, and supporting the elderly: What do these topics have in common? Each topic represents a service-learning project coordinated by eighth-grade students from Hudson (OH) Middle School (HMS). The Service Learning Literacy course evolved from a Real World Language Arts unit that Ms. Hohenfeld previously taught in her language arts classes. Given the opportunity to offer a new semester-long course, Dr. Kimberly Cockley, HMS principal, approached Ms. Hohenfeld about creating a course similar to this unit. Ms. Hohenfeld spent the following summer studying service-learning and creating the curriculum. Service Learning Literacy was born: a course dedicated to teaching literacy skills while embracing projects where students self-select a topic to research and work to improve our world in some way. As the course developed, students’ Service Learning projects garnered interest and enthusiasm around the school and in the community.
At the beginning of the semester, students have the opportunity to learn from a model of service-learning called Hands of Gratitude [https://www.hands-of-gratitude.com/]. Thanks to generous grants and donations, students collaboratively build 3D-printed prosthetic hands. These prosthetic hands, along with personalized cards, are shipped to those in need around the world. Starting the course with a strong example of service helps students practice important skills for successful service-learning projects such as collaboration, problem-solving, and gathering credible research, along with character traits such as perseverance and empathy.
Next, students learn about a variety of issues in the world, eventually narrowing to a topic where they see a need and a desire to help. They may connect with community partners who have worked with students in previous semesters or search for new partners. Lorri Kingan, Library Media Specialist, co-teaches research strategies as students develop essential questions. Using keyword searches, students begin to examine the information from several databases, evaluate sources, and interpret data. After students conduct some research, they create an action plan. The instructors provide an educational experience during which students see research as a process and realize that research is integral to making educated decisions.Throughout the entire course the workshop model is utilized. Students are working on self-selected projects and the teacher facilitates, teaching mini lessons to individuals, small groups, or the whole class along the way. Students communicate with stakeholders via formal emails, phone calls, and meetings to execute their action plans. To take action, students lead activities at senior centers, host park clean-ups, create care packages for hospitalized children and refugee families, and much more.
After taking action, students use writing and technology skills to educate and inspire others. The class reviews literacy lessons such as understanding plagiarism and writing for different purposes and audiences. Students choose an authentic audience and select ways to share their research and action plans with that group. Student outreach might include teaching lessons to other students, speaking at community meetings, posting flyers at local businesses, and more. Students share their projects with other students, staff, and community members through live presentations and Flipgrid videos at a culminating event.
The goal is for HMS’s Service Learning Literacy course to create authentic, student-led service learning projects and empower lifelong learners who will continue to use literacy skills to learn about problems in the world and know that they have the power to help. Students value the opportunity for choice. They are able to learn about a need that is important to them. In executing project-based learning strategies to meet the Ohio learning standards, students learn in an authentic way to participate in the world around them. Former students keep in touch years later to share how they are still improving the world. What could be more gratifying for educators?
Service Project Examples
Community partners: animal shelters, zoos
Service activities: raise awareness of plights and/or related laws, make needed items such as treats, blankets, or enrichment toys, on-site volunteer assistance
Community partners: senior centers, individual families or community members
Service activities: create or enhance programs, make needed materials, create and/or lead games, puzzles, and activities
Community partners: HMS, community parks or green spaces, their family’s home
Service activities: Park clean-up, plastic reduction, native planting, invasive plant removal
Community partners: local refugee organizations, English Language Learner (ELL) programs
Service activities: create welcome packages and ELL materials for kids, offer ELL support at HMS, make welcome cards and care packages for refugees
Community partners: HMS, surrounding schools and organizations
Service activities: Create/enhance reading programs, create/teach advisory lessons, start a school newspaper
Community partners: local addiction centers, housing shelters
Service activities: raise awareness, create care packages and cards for residents, work with school counselors to create “take what you need” boards in restrooms
Community partners: shelters, food banks
Service activities: work with local food banks, create cards/care packages for shelters, blankets, raise awareness, create resources centers in the media center, volunteer
Community partners: special education teachers
Service activities: make things such as 3D-printed fidgets, lead “make it and take it” activities in maker space, plant native plants in the school yard, volunteer in classroom
Teacher Reflections & Advice
These service-learning experiences provide opportunities for students who sometimes struggle in school to discover the power of helping others, which has the potential to build confidence and a more positive attitude about school.
The “workshop model” (described in the post above) is critical to this process and should be a large part of the timeline.
Since service-learning projects are intended to reach beyond the school’s walls (in most cases), it is important that students have their materials approved before teaching, posting, publishing.
Facilitate storytelling about the service-learning projects. Encourage students to share or present about their service. Teachers should also present about their experiences at community organizations or conferences.
Collaboration with administrators and library media specialists or teacher librarians is incredibly helpful.
It is important to give students choice and independence, while guiding them to use research, community expert advice, and reflections to strengthen their projects.
Reflections are important. Reflections help students connect school curriculum to their service experiences. Students take ownership of their projects, reflecting and finding ways to improve. The reflections also give teachers insight into students’ thoughts and give teachers inspiration!
Reflections from 8th Grade Students
“Service-learning is something very crucial. I think that more schools should be part in service- learning. Understanding our worldwide problems and taking part in solutions is something that we as a community need to do!”
“I will use my new research knowledge on future assignments, and will attempt to only use databases. I will do research before making an important decision, and will look for the facts and the experts to guide me along the way. Research will help me improve my everyday life.”
“I learned why you need to research before going out and doing something. For example, you could be doing things that you think help the environment or people in poverty but if you didn’t research, those things could be wrong.”
“...throughout this whole project not only was I trying to help others but I was trying to find myself. This project helped me soooo much…I loved it because it helped me find myself, I walk out of class being confident with who I am, and I’m loving it.”
“My proudest moment so far was when we went out to plant [native plants at the school]...Another one of my proudest moments was walking up and sharing my flier with Suncrest [local garden center that donated to us] because I realized that I took a topic I knew nothing about and by the end I was able to share with experts on that topic.”
“My proudest moment was really just knowing that I’m here not because it was a class, but because I wanted to make an impact, I wanted to be here.”
“I felt the most proud in the project when it was completed - when I had the chance to see the world in a better light, and to know that I actually had the chance to go out and change something that I had cared about, something I never thought I could do.”
“Future me will do as much as I can to help causes that I stand for and help people in need. I will always put myself in other people's shoes before judging them. This service learning experience has made me a better person.”
Kaye, C. B. (2010). The complete guide to service learning: Proven, practical ways to engage students in civic responsibility, academic curriculum, & social action (2nd ed.). Free Spirit Publishing.
Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning. IMPress Books.